With Cherokee senior Nikki Clifford going into her senior year this cross country season, head coach Mark Jarvis saw a physically and mentally stronger runner than he had during the prior three years.
Coming off a strong spring track season last school year to finish her junior year, Clifford put emphasis on running more miles in the summer than she ever had before, while also focusing on strength and cross training.
“I thought her potential coming into her senior year was higher than it’s ever been, just by the way her junior year ended with getting to a much better place all around than she had been in the years prior,” Jarvis said.
“And with the way she started this season off … It was just amazing.”
Cherokee kicked off the 2021 season with its first team win at the Cherokee Challenge, with Clifford winning the senior race in a time of 11:43 to secure the Chiefs’ victory. After proving herself in the first race, Clifford just seemed different.
“It was exciting to see the success she was having early on during the season,” Jarvis said. “Over the course of the beginning of the first few weeks, she just didn’t lose. And even that race or two where it didn’t go how she wanted or planned, she was still just consistently finishing near the top in each race, if she wasn’t already in first.
“It was a great indication early on that it was going to be a special year for her.”
During a season in which she defended her Burlington County Open individual title and won the Olympic Conference Championship title, Clifford was often the lead runner for a team that captured a South Jersey Group 4 sectional title, Group 4 state title, Meet of Champions title and Nike Northeast Regional title.
Clifford shined again and again over the course of the season. Due to her instrumental role in Cherokee’s record breaking season, Nicole Clifford is South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Looking back, Clifford feels that her individual success at the Cherokee Challenge to start off the year – even though the race is 3,200 meters rather than the traditional 5,000 – helped Clifford see herself as a legitimate top state runner.
“It was definitely such a confidence boost to be able to do that in my first race of the season,” Clifford said. “Even though it’s not the normal 5K, it’s still a good indicator for where you are in your training to start the season, and being able to see my name up there with some of the top returners in the state was a big confidence boost.”
As a senior captain on the relatively young Cherokee team, Clifford provided both leadership and experience, according to her coach. But she said the job felt easy, thanks to both the work ethic and mentality that her fellow runners carried through the season.
“I’ve been asked a few times about what it’s like ‘leading’ this team as a senior, but they made that aspect of the season so easy … “ Clifford said. “Had I not known how old these girls were, I wouldn’t have guessed how young some of us are.
“They are such mature runners and people; they were so driven all season to be the best that they could be,’’ she added.
“If anything, they motivated me throughout the season, not the other way around.”